by Frayda Leibtag
The Jewish Agency’s Partnership2Gether platform (P2G, previously known as Partnership 2000) is an effective paradigm for connecting Israeli communities with Jewish communities around the globe. Originally envisioned as a link between Jewish communities overseas with municipal regional councils in Israel, the partnerships were designed based on the traditional model of overseas Jewry strengthening the State of Israel. As Israeli society matured and developed, The Jewish Agency adopted a policy that the Israeli chairs of the joint steering committee should be volunteers rather than municipal civil servants, creating parallel structures of civic volunteer leadership in Israel and abroad.
Eight years ago, less than 20 percent of the 45 P2G partnerships were lay-led. Today, the vast majority have joint lay structures. Remarkably, high profile Israelis have signed on in a volunteer capacity to be the chairs and members of the steering committees here in Israel. According to Andrea Arbel, Director of the Partnership Unit at The Jewish Agency, committee chairs include an unusual number of former Israeli Air Force pilots, CEOs of leading Israeli corporations and organizations, former judges and doctors and other notable Israeli individuals such as the inventor of the USB flash drive. In addition, the focus of P2G has shifted from Israel-centric programs to “living bridge” people-to-people programs.
Why are high-caliber, successful Israelis choosing to get involved?
Five years ago, Raya Strauss Bendror, who was the P2G Israel Chairperson and previously the Co-Chair of the Nahariya-Northern New Jersey partnership, brought together the Israeli committee chairs for a 24-hour retreat in Israel to outline a vision for P2G. The outcome of the weekend was not a clearly defined vision, but rather a unanimous, pressing desire for action. The chairs were concerned about the future of the Jewish people and they wanted to know what else they could be doing to help the overseas Jewish community strengthen itself.
“The volunteers in Israel are a group of people that ‘get it.’ They understand the challenge of the Jewish people and that people-to-people programs are a way to have a meaningful impact,” said Arbel. Yossi Ackerman, outgoing CEO of Elbit Systems, served as the Co-Chair of the Central Galilee-Michigan Partnership for four years. “I saw that if we didn’t take action, Detroit’s community of 60,000 Jews would eventually assimilate. P2G has brought the Detroit community together on behalf of Israel, creating a goal worth fighting for,” said Ackerman. “It’s simply a big mitzvah. We need to do as much as we can because without programs like this, there will be no Jewish nation.”
Ackerman pointed to three focal partnerships that resulted from the P2G program which he co-chaired: the partnership between the local regional councils in the Galilee, partnerships within the Detroit Jewish community and a partnership between the U.S. and Israel. “The outcome is personal connections and friendships between hundreds of people, and even the marriage of two individuals from Detroit who met on a P2G program in Israel,” said Ackerman.
One product of the dynamic partnership and interaction between the Central Galilee region and Michigan was a special English language program for students in Israel. The partnership funded English lessons for the students in Israel to help overcome the language barrier between students in Israel and the U.S. The program was an extraordinary success, raising the English level of participating students to above-average. The Israeli students were able to utilize their newfound English skills on P2G trips to visit their peers in Detroit. Relationships and a feeling of connection to Jews around the world are at the heart of the teamwork that generates these types of programs.
Doron Lev, Co-Chair of the P2G Sovev Kinneret/ Milwaukee-Tulsa-St. Paul Partnership, has been involved for over eight years. Professionally, he is the CEO and founder of an agricultural consulting firm and owner of a mango farm. “I truly think that this partnership is one of the last means we have to maintain a connection between Jews in different countries around the world. One-hundred-and-fifty years ago, a Jew could walk into any Jewish community and would immediately be welcomed in. Today, when we live in a global village, the Jewish world is less connected than it was in the past. P2G is reestablishing this connection by creating a direct relationship between people on the basis of joint issues and shared ideologies, irrespective of religious stances. The result is a strengthened connection to the Jewish people,” said Lev.
The Sovev Kinneret/ Milwaukee-Tulsa-St. Paul partnership is the first one to allocate 100 percent of its budget to people-to-people programs, as opposed to regional development programs. Lev passionately believes that these programs are mutually beneficial, reinforcing the Jewish, Zionist identities of Israeli participants and fostering a connection to Israel for Diaspora participants.
Yardena Wysokier, a lecturer in the Jewish History department of Sapir College in Sderot and a renowned Israeli sculptor, has been the Co-Chair of the Eshkol-Mexico-Northeastern New York Partnership for over three years. “The work I do recharges all of my Jewish and Zionist batteries, in the deepest parts of my heart, and gives me a feeling of enthusiasm. All of the work is on a volunteer basis, yet the excitement of the work motivates me to continually give of myself,” said Wysokier. She meets weekly with her overseas co-chairs over Skype and leads discussion groups on Jewish identity and connection with every delegation of youth and students that visits Eshkol. “The partnership is a platform for us to advance our shared goal of empowering and developing leadership among the young generation, as well as to cultivate a sense of connection within the Jewish community,” said Wysokier.
These Israeli Co-Chairs see P2G as an engaging, meaningful program with a unique mix of personal and professional interactions. “The programs are very hands-on and very real, with room for initiative and creativity. Our volunteers in Israel work hard for us. The opportunity to develop serious personal and professional connections is the cherry on top,” said Arbel.
Aside from the individual satisfaction and feeling of mission, the participants in P2G programs gain a family and home-away-from-home in exchange for their hard work. When Doron Lev’s U.S. Co-Chair asked him to host his sister’s son who was visiting Israel for the first time on a university program, he unhesitatingly agreed. The personal relationships developed through P2G are at the core of the program’s success. “This is what it means to be involved in this partnership. We open up our world and our homes to anyone who is part of the partnership, and all of their family as well. We brush our teeth in the morning with people we don’t even know. These relationships and connections are reuniting the Jewish nation,” concluded Lev.